The calamitous start to the Sabres' season extended into their front office, where several officials were dismissed in November, including team president Doug Moss, who lost a power struggle with Marine Midland Arena president Larry Quinn. Even though it ended with a stunning knockout—Quinn became the Sabres' president—Moss versus Quinn was merely the undercard. The main event, Muckler versus Nolan, looks as if it will go the distance. The question that now haunts the Buffalo organization is, are you a Muckler man or a Nolan man?
With the retirement of Bills quarterback Jim Kelly, the 38-year-old Nolan is the most popular sports figure in Buffalo. When Nolan crossed the Peace Bridge from Ontario to Buffalo after Muckler hired him in July 1995, a U.S. customs agent asked him to open the trunk of his car. "I'm looking for some blood and guts," the agent explained. "I hope you can bring some to the team."
Nolan erased the remnants of the sissified identity the Sabres had in the early 1990s and unleashed their toughness. He's a proud, stubborn man who is almost as good at his job as the proud, stubborn Muckler is at his. Muckler, 62, has pared the Buffalo payroll from $30 million to $21 million and improved the Sabres in the process, a feat as impressive in its flinty way as the five Stanley Cups he helped win as the coach or as an assistant with the Edmonton Oilers from 1983-84 through 1989-90. But Nolan and Muckler have clashed over player development—Nolan sometimes has to do as much teaching as coaching with the young team—and a frost has settled in. The Buffalo News reported that Quinn offered Nolan a three-year contract extension but that Nolan hasn't signed it because he is looking for professional guarantees, which is a fancy way of saying a reduced role for Muckler. "Right now the team's been winning, we're ahead of schedule in our development plan, things should be great," one Sabres executive says. "But this Muckler-Nolan thing has been tearing the organization apart."
This internecine war is not as crowd-pleasing as the interteam battles the Sabres provide for their black-and-blue-collar city. After Stéphane Quintal of the Montreal Canadiens elbowed defenseman Mike Wilson with 8.8 seconds remaining in Buffalo's 6-1 win on Jan. 22, the Marine Midland mob responded by chanting, "We want Ray!" Nolan was happy to oblige after the Canadiens sent out Brad Brown, who, at 6'3" and 220 pounds, is physically imposing but not overly disputatious.
Nolan: "Keep things calmed down."
Ray: "You mean that?"
Nolan: "Do whatever you think is necessary."
The teams lined up for the face-off in the Montreal zone, but Brown kept circling. Ray growled, "Quit skating away. I've only got eight seconds to catch you."
Referee Don Koharski: "You two going to fight?"
Ray: "I can't fight him. He can't even grow a beard."